Handling the Difficult Messages
Every week, I prepare a sermon. In general, I plan my preaching schedule for several months in advance. The advantage is that I can begin thinking and praying about the messages earlier rather than later. But, no matter how far out I plan, some messages are just more difficult than others.
Whether you are the teaching pastor of your church or the leader of small group, there are times when a message just seems more difficult. Since I began preaching and teaching in churches as a teenager, there have been many times when landing on the final form of a message was a laborious task. Sometimes you stare at a topic, fully convinced that the church needs to hear about it but then you flounder. It feels impossible to land on the right passage from the many to choose from that will be the right one at the right time. At other times, you have the passage but simply can’t dig out the core point in a way that communicates well. And then there are the agonizing times when I know the passage, know the main idea, but the outline, illustrations, and everything else just will not come together. You feel like the best you can do is stand up, read the passage, say two or three sentences, and sit back down. It is highly likely that I should have done just that on multiple occasions when I tried to wax eloquently for 30-40 minutes instead. So to all those who sat through the multiple messages that I’ve tanked… sorry.
Thinking through why it all happens has made me stop to consider how we should handle the difficult messages. Specifically, here is how I handle myself and the task when the passage, the outline, or the experience just does not appear to make sense.
1. Perspective. The thought in my twenties was: “This is hard but the older guys make it seem easy. It will get easier for me too.” In my thirties, I thought: “I just need to live more and learn more.” Now in my forties, my thought is: “I hope that the messages are always hard so that I’ll never grow complacent.” With a bit of age, I’ve gained a better perspective. At the end of it all, every passage will have an ease and a difficulty to it. So it is better to prepare yourself for this inevitable reality.
2. Self-examination. Sermons are often difficult to emerge in our preparation and/or flop in our delivery because of a lack of self-examination. When we treat the passage like a scientific experiment to benefit others, we fail as pastors. The Scripture must test us first before we deliver it to our churches. Our time of study is also our time for spiritual formation. Our time of preaching is also our time of worship.
3. Repentance. Closely associated with self-examination is the opportunity for repentance. I remember quite clearly many times of sermon preparation when I recognized my own need for repentance. A great blessing occurs when it is in the time of study. It is another story when repentance happens during the preaching event. And, if we are honest as pastors, I think we’ve all repented internally while publicly proclaiming the truth. I have often prayed while preaching, “God, restore me in this.”
4. Tackle it! The difficult messages occur simply because the Scriptures run counter to our culture. How do you handle the difficult messages that are sure to offend people? We must heed the words given to Joshua. Haven’t “I commanded you: be strong and courageous? Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). The only way to handle the biblical truth that will cause people to face their sin and thus may turn on you is to simple tackle it fearlessly because of God’s presence with you. For pastors, taking on the truth that will cause complaints is often the place the requires the most faith from us.
5. Study more. Honestly, often the passage are difficult because we do not study enough. Thomas Edison said, “We often miss opportunity because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Though I’m not opposing that the Spirit can supernaturally work at the time of your sermon delivery, I think He also wants to work in you to prepare you for the moment of proclamation. If the passages are coming to you with great difficulty in preaching, then perhaps it is time to revisit the study habits, or lack thereof.
The moment to preach the truth of God’s Word is one of the greatest and most severe moments of life. It is a beautiful weight we carry by the Spirit’s power. As those who teach, we must pray for ourselves and one another that we will not shrink back from what is difficult but rather embrace what is transformational.